Classical mythology is the source of the latest microaggression at Columbia University

Classical mythology is the source of the latest microaggression at Columbia University

When “A Catcher in the Rye” was published in 1951, its original intended audience was adults. Even then, the novel was criticized for its vulgar language, sexual references (which shockingly for the time included homosexuality), incitement to rebel, and promotion of drinking, smoking, lying, and promiscuity.

In spite of these early reservations, the work has gone on to become an American classic, largely because of J.D. Salinger’s unparalleled ear for dialog and craft as a storyteller, accompanied by a shift in mores. But a whole new round of attacks have been leveled at the actual classics, the ones dating to ancient Greece and Rome.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes at Reason:

In Columbia University’s student newspaper [the Columbia Daily Spectator], four members of the school’s student Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board call on professors to be more sensitive when teaching provocative or controversial material … such as the Roman classical poet Ovid.

Ovid is best known for The Metamorphoses, a 15-book narrative poem that covers more than 250 mythological stories…. Whether or not it’s something today’s students should spend time on may be up for debate, but I think most people can understand why an instructor teaching it would focus on things like the language and imagery invoked.

Not these Columbia students, however. See, some of the myths Ovid recounts involve sexual violence. Zeus’s daughter Persephone (aka Prosperina), for instance, is kidnapped, raped, and taken as a bride by Hades, king of the underworld.

It’s hard to know whether the mention of the underworld is troubling because that nether region figures prominently in Christianity, which for some on the Columbia campus is a four-letter word. But, according to the Spectator writers, the “Metamorphoses” as a whole should be avoided because it “contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom”:

These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.

The insensitivity to the needs of students belonging to protected classes is not just a problem at Columbia. Writing at National Review, Katherine Timpf address a newly released report by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which suggests that just “walking into or sitting in” a classroom full of white people is a microaggression in itself for people of color.

Titled “Racial Microaggressions,” the report is based on a survey completed by over 4,800 students of color, of whom 39% reported feeling uncomfortable on campus because of their race. Under the heading “Students of Color Tell Their Stories” is firsthand, if anonymous, accounts. Some examples:

  • People do not necessarily say I do not belong, but I feel as if I do not when I am in a classroom and I am the one non-White person. (Latina, Female)
  • I get stares when I walk into classrooms as if to say, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Classmates don’t talk to me and when it is time to gather in groups they seem to not want me in the groups. (African American, Female)
  • I’ve been in classes where people avoided sitting around me. That happened when there were a lot of assaults on campus. Students would fill the other seats in the classroom, while the ones next to me or around me would remain empty. It happened to me so many times. (African American, Male)

This is all very illuminating, although not necessarily in the way the authors intended. Taking the first testimonial — the experience of “Latina, Female” — notice that skin color is at least as important to her as it is to anyone else. How else would she know that she is the “one non-White person”?

And how does the complaint by “African American, Female” square with the demand on campuses for separate but equal Black Student Unions and exclusionary organizations with names like Racialized Students’ Collective?

If these issues are to be taken seriously, they need to be evaluated in a larger context that stipulates that everyone involved — protected or otherwise — is equal. That may sound like a given until one recalls such ludicrous artifices as white privilege. Only when the protected classes stop treating the so-called majority as the enemy can the conversation begin.

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Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy

Howard Portnoy has written for The Blaze, HotAir, NewsBusters, Weasel Zippers, Conservative Firing Line, RedCounty, and New York’s Daily News. He has one published novel, Hot Rain, (G. P. Putnam’s Sons), and has been a guest on Radio Vice Online with Jim Vicevich, The Alana Burke Show, Smart Life with Dr. Gina, and The George Espenlaub Show.


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